Henrietta Mears and the History of Evangelical Women

Henrietta Mears and the History of Evangelical Women February 7, 2013

A few months ago, our Thomas Kidd praised Catherine Brekus’s just-released Sarah Osborn’s World as an especially compelling religious biography.

I recently had the chance to read Sarah Osborn’s World along with a class of students at George Mason University.  I came away just as impressed. I recommend it to anyone interested in the historical development of evangelicalism in the United States. Brekus recovers Osborn’s role in the mid-eighteenth-century awakenings, makes her voluminous writings accessible to contemporary readers, and uses Osborn to illuminate early evangelicalism’s mutually beneficial (in her interpretation) interaction with the American Enlightenment.

“Women’s History Is American Religious History,” Ann Braude once wrote. As Braude noted, women have long outpaced men in most measures of religiosity, yet historians of religion in America have long paid much more attention to men, in part because men occupied the most visible forms of leadership. It is not surprising that George Whitefield gained enduring fame, whereas Sarah Osborn became mostly forgotten. In significant ways, scholars of American religion (Catherine Brekus perhaps foremost among them) have done much to improve the state of the field by recovering the ways in which women played significant roles in all aspects of the history of religion in the United States.

Reading about Sarah Osborn reminded me of another evangelical leader whose relatively obscurity belies her significance. Quite a few years ago, I learned about Baptist-turned-Presbyterian Sunday School superintendent and youth evangelist Henrietta Mears, the longtime “power behind the throne” at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. I encountered Mears because she had played a formative role in Bill Bright’s conversion and decision to devote himself to campus ministry. While doing research on Bill Bright, I interviewed a number of people who had known Henrietta Mears (“Teacher,” they called her) at Hollywood Presbyterian. Their stories were fascinating.

Henrietta Mears was born in North Dakota, grew up in Minneapolis, and spent many years in William B. Riley’s First Baptist Church in the latter city. Very little about Mears suggested that she, like Sarah Osborn, would become an important teacher and evangelist. She never married, wore thick glasses because of poor eyesight, and wore somewhat flamboyant clothing (especially wild hats). Evelyn Roberts, wife of the evangelist Oral Roberts, once commented that Mears “looked like a fashion box outside but … knew Jesus inside.”

Wherever she went, however, young people flocked to her, and after she moved to Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1929, she attracted not only the young people of its congregation but a host of men and women from local colleges like UCLA. She tutored many of the mid-to-late twentieth century’s most influential Presbyterian evangelicals: Richard Halverson, Donn Moomaw, and Bill Bright, just to name a few. At Hollywood Presbyterian and at the Forest Home retreat center near San Bernardino, she preached a Keswick-style spirituality that stressed complete surrender to Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. (It was at Forest Home that Billy Graham resolved his doubts about the Bible before his pivotal 1949 Los Angeles crusade). Mears was a leader in the evangelical Sunday School movement, and her Sunday School curricula (published by Gospel Light Press) reached a wide audience. “Every [Sunday school] lesson,” Mears insisted, “should always contain the WAY OF SALVATION.”

Mears always served under male authority. She would not preach from Hollywood Presbyterian’s pulpit, but she taught both men and women with authority. Just as Sarah Osborn exercised much more power in her Newport, Rhode Island, church than any man (at least until Samuel Hopkins established himself), Henrietta Mears was the most powerful figure at what for a time was the nation’s largest Presbyterian church. “All the elders of the church and all the pastors of the church were all men,” one woman told me, “and there were something like forty-five men on the session that seemed to be all delighted to eat out of her hand.”

It has long occurred to me that there must be countless female leaders like Sarah Osborn and Henrietta Mears whose stories continue to elude historians. I felt I understood early American evangelicalism much better after approaching it through the pen of Sarah Osborn. As historians gradually uncover more hidden stories of female leaders (and congregants), we will continue to gain a richer and more complete understanding of the evangelical past.

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  • Piper Cartland

    Thank you, Mr. Turner! I am a Presbyterian pastor serving a congregation just outside Anchorage, Alaska. My father is a retired seminary professor – but at 19 he was a chemical engineering major at the University of Washington. He went to a Religious Emphasis weekend at his fraternity. There, primarily through the witness and friendship of the college pastor at University Presbyterian Church, my dad learned to know Christ and ended up teaching Old Testament to theological students – men and (eventually!) women who were called to vocational ministry. The campus pastor who was so instrumental in my father’s life of Christian service was a man whose own faith and vocation had been deeply influenced by Henrietta Mears at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. So, although I never met her, I think of Miss Mears as my great-great-grandmother in the faith, and myself as her spiritual great-great-granddaughter. It’s a blessing to be living into her legacy of proclaiming the gospel – as a woman and as an evangelical. Thank you for the reminder!

  • johnturner

    Thanks for commenting, Piper. Henrietta Mears inspired a generation of evangelically inclined Presbyterian ministers, and I’m glad to know that one played a formative role in your family’s life.

  • Barb

    add Dale Bruner to the list–when I heard him teach he talked about her all the time. Oh and Hi to Piper–rememember me from CKPC! Barb Murphy

  • johnturner

    Dale Bruner was one of the people I interviewed about Teacher. I enjoyed getting to know him.

  • This was so good…and so much to write, so little space…I’m 71, and a child of “Teacher” too…when she was at First Baptist Church of Minneapolis…her Sunday School class, I think it was called “Fidelis Class”, (faithful)…she grew her class from one to hundreds…this was in the 1920’s…two of the many “girls” who became missionaries, Christian workers, etc…came to our little community west of Minneapolis…the two of them (Mabel Norberg and Kate Sorvig) who kept contact with Miss Mears, even after she moved to California…started a Sunday School in that early suburb of Minneapolis…My Mother was small then and poor, in the ’20’s…but her and hundreds of children over the years attended…my Mom found Christ there as a child…and years later, so did I…and so goes the story and influence of Miss Mears…if all could be told how many today are direct results of her teaching, it would be amazing…Mabel and Kate spent their life there…serving…Mabel gave me the book “The Henrietta Mears Story” by Barbara Powers in 1966 and I have read “Dream Big” a story about “Teacher”…that is part of the Minnesota story…and as she said, “If you would be pure, saturate yourself with the Word of God.”…so much more…

  • William (Bill) N Johnson

    I, too, grew up at First Presbyterian Hollywood and learned from Henrietta Mears but often argued with her that she was more Baptist than Presbyterian (Calvinist). I loved her commitment to Christ but as I grew in my faith and pastored Presbyterian churches realized that what I received from Miss Mears. (I never called her “Teacher”) was an understanding that was not my understanding of our Reformed faith or the Bible, and often, for me at least, far too conservative and Baptist.
    She was a unique gem, but certainly, for mr at least, not the authoritative word. It took my search at UCLA to really hear God speaking to me about the ministry which turned into a highly successful 50+ years of pastoral ministry in Christ’s name and to His glory.

  • johnturner

    Miss Mears sometimes called herself a “Bapterian” and was certainly more of an interdenominational evangelical than a committed Presbyterian.

    Thanks so much for your comment.